Game 7 Preview: Oakland

Overview: In some respects, it’s wrong to call Sunday’s game against the Raiders a “must-win” game. The Browns are 3-3; even if they lose this game, they have home games against Tampa (game 8) and Houston (game 10) and road games in Atlanta (game 11) and Buffalo (game 12).

They could lost this and still wind up at 7-9. It would be impressive progress; fans could spend the off-season saying “If only we’d got those… but, hey, we’re getting a better draft pick.”

But if the Browns lose, they will become the first team to lose to (a) winless teams, (b) in consecutive weeks, (c) after week six. (Thank you NFL stats department.) It would be an emphatic confession that the team is not as good as it has looked– that anything and everything about it is a fluke.

The wins would be attributed to ineptitude on the part of New Orleans (which is now 2-4), Tennessee (2-5) and Pittsburgh (4-3).The players would get withering scrutiny. And Mike Pettine and Ray Farmer would find themselves on the hot seat.

One point that has been overlooked– but will immediately become an issue if the Browns lose again– is that the draft class looks awful. CB Justin Gilbert has played badly; QB Johnny Football has barely played and CB Pierre Desir hasn’t played at all.

LB Chris Kirksey has been horrible on run play and mediocre on pass defense; RB Terrance West was benched for a game and (other than game 1) has been unimpressive. The only good pick, at this point, is LG Joel Bitonio.

Since the list of upcoming free agents is very large– and it includes some key players– thjngs could get nasty, as people debate the future of:

  • TE Jordan “Poke” Cameron, DE-LB Jabaal Sheard and CB Buster Skrine (to name the ones I’d want to keep), and
  • QB Brian HoyerDL Ahtyba Rubin,  K Billy Cundiff and WR Miles Austin (to name the ones who will probably be too costly or not desirable).

So it would be highly desirable if the Browns win.

The problem is that it isn’t clear whether they will.

The Opponent: The longest streak of seasons without a playoff game belongs to the Buffalo Bills (since 1999, so 15 seasons and counting). Cleveland and Oakland (both 11; 2002) are tied for second. The Raiders reached the Super Bowl in 2002 (Cleveland lost the wild card game), but they haven’t had a winning season since (consecutive .500 seasons in 2010-11.

The problem– as it has been in all three cities– has been ownership. Al Davis, who died in 2011 at age 82, went senile (looking at the annual results) sometime in the 1990’s. The Raiders got four high picks in exchange for letting Gruden leave for Tamp and blew them all. It began a string of choices that made no sense at all.

The coaching choices became bizarre. Art Shell and Gruden were OK– and nobody could have predicted that Bill Callahan (Gruden’s offensive coordinator) would be as bad as he was But:

  • Niorv Turner was a retread
  • The return to Art Shell made as much sense as Dan Gilbert rehiring Mike Brown
  • Lane Kiffin and Tom Cable were controversial off the field and unsuccessful on it

In 2011, Hue Jackson was named coach, and he had the team off to a good start with Jason Campbell-Cabot at QB. When the QB went down with the record at 4-2, just after Davis died, Jackson wrested control and traded a #1 and #2 for Carson Palmer, in a panicked attempt to make the playoffs.It didn’t work (Palmer didn’t know the offense), and they went 4-5.

New owner Mark Davis hired GM Reggie McKenzie from Green Bay, mostly on the recommendations of Ron Wolf (who had hired McKenzie when Wolf was GM) and John Madden.

I didn’t think it was a wise choice– I hadn’t been impressed by Green Bay’s scouting– and I really didn’t think you should listen to guys who’d been out of the league for years.

And it hasn’t been. McKenzie hired Dennis Allen as coach– a guy who looked completely unqualified:

  • He’d spent 1996-99 as a graduate assistant at Texas A&M under R.C,. Slocum (who went 34-22, never winning a bowl game).
  • 2000-01 as defensive backs coach at Tulsa (which went 6-17 under Keith Burns).
  • 2002-05 as “Defensive Assistant for Quality Control” at Atlanta (33-30-1 under Dan Reeves and then Jim Mora Jr.).
  • 2006-07 in New Orleans as “Assistant Defensive Line” coach (under Sean Payton, who went 17-15).
  • 2008-10 as the Saints’ defensive backs coach (Payton went 32-16 and won a title)
  • 2011 as Defensive Coordinator in Denver (John Fox went 8-8)

My question in my newsletter at the time was “What qualifies this guy to be an NFL head coach?” He’s been coaching for 15 years, has one year coordinating, 5 as a position coach and 9 years as a gofer. All his NFL experience is in the NFC south, and not (except for that one championship) for terribly good teams.

Allen and McKenzie went 4-12 in 2012 and were 26th in points scored. and 28th in points allowed.  They decided the culprit was Palmer (rating of 85.3; 22-14 TD-INT ratio) and traded him and a #7 pick to Arizona for a #6 and #7. This was a pretty stupid idea, in that:

  • it opened up a chasm at QB– the Raiders have used Terrelle Pryor (who went 3-7), Matt Leinart (never started), Matt Flynn (0-1) and Matt McGloin (1-6)
  • Palmer has gone 13-6 in Arizona.

The 2012 draft had been defoliated by Jackson, but the 10 draft picks in 2013 produced only two players who started. This for a team that went 4-12.

The Raiders have been active in free agency, but the 2013 team improved from 26th to 24th in offense– and declined from 38th to 29th on defense.

With his job on the line, McKenzie fired Allen after the 0-4 start. His replacement, Tony Sparano, is major step forward, in that some people believe he can coach. Sparano was the coach in one of these “Bill Parcells runs your team for a year” reality shows in Miami. Parcells made his son-in-law the GM. Sparano went 11-5 in year one, then 7-9 twice and got fired by the GM right before he got whacked.

He’s having a positive effect. Oakland was outscored 51-103 in Allen’s four games (12.8 points scored; 26 points allowed), losing two games (the Jets and Patriots) by a TD or less and two (Houston, Miami) by blowout.

Under Sparano. they’ve lost 41-55 (scoring 20.5 and allowing 27.5). They lost by three points to San Diego, buy lost by 11 to Arizona (Palmer taking his revenge)

The change on offense was addition by subtraction. Allen hired Greg Olsen as his offensive coordinator, a guy whose name always finishes high in the nominations for “Worst assistant” He had only one team in his career (the 2006 Rams) who finished higher than 20th in points (he got them down to 28th the next year), and when he was coaching quarterbacks, all his players hated him.

Olsen is one of those guys who reminds you of a tax accountant. He only knows how to run one offense (a cheesy version of the West Coast), which all the players must conform to. The notion that Olsen might pick plays that suit his players’ talents– or that he might design formations and schemes to fit them– is unheard-of.

Having Greg Olsen calling your plays is usually going to cut 7-10 points off your scoring average. One of Sparano’s big announcements was that he would try to run more plays for Maurice Jones-Drew (signed as a free agent). Jones-Drew is 289 and he has a lot of miles on his tires…but he’s had only 18 carries and 5 receptions.

Olsen gave him 9 carries in the Jets game, got 11 yards and put him on the bench. In the last 2 games, he’s had 7 carries for 36 yards.

The other option on the ground is Darren McFadden, who’s never had (other than 2010) a good year. He had 45 carries for 152 yards (3.4 yards) under Allen & Olsen and had 28 carries for 128 yards (4.6 a carry) under Sparano and senior assistant (translation: really old guy who can’t put in 100-hour weeks) Al Saunders.

QB Derek Carr, who fell to the second round, is an even better illustration of the change. In his first four games (he went into the first game as a reliever and began starting in game 2), he had a 75.2 rating, with 4 TDs and 4 INTs.

In the last two games, it’s 93.1, with 4 TDs and only 1 pick. And that isn’t due to quality of competition. The first four games were against Miami, New England, Houston and the Jets (a combined 11-16), while the last two came against the Chargers and Cardinals (10-4).

Carr is having a pretty good year, all things considered. Unlike his brother David, he gets rid of the ball quickly and can avoid the sack. He’s been sacked on 2% of his attempts; his brother (who busted out big as the #1 overall choice) averaged 10%.

And the danger about a rookie QB is that you never know when he’ll make the big step forward. The receivers he seems to like most are James Jones for possession, Andre Holmes and Brice Butler for long balls.

If the Brows don’t cover well, they’ll get burned badly.

The defense, which hasn’t improved since the coaching change, is a pretty dreary affair. Put it this way– SS Usama Young and LB Kaiuka Miava (until he got huirt) have been starters. And they aren’t the worst players.

On the brighter side, LB Khalil Mack is making the decision to pass him up look very bad. he’s been all over the field making tackles, without leaving the backside open. He hasn’t shown any pass rush ability… but Oakland put him on the strong side, so you wouldn’t see that.

On the line, DE Justin Tuck (who won 2 championships with the Giants and decided to go make some money) is doing what he can.

In the backfield, CB Carlos Rogers (left the 49ers for more money) and FS Charles Woodson lend some veteran knowledge; collecting a big payday There are rumors we might have a D.J. Hayden (#1 pick in 2013; only been healthy enough to play 8 games).

Outcome: I have no idea. I wish I could say:

“This should be an easy game for the Browns to win– they’re at home, facing a winless team that has already fired the coach and is looking at a housecleaning. Woodson sounded close to giving up after the last loss.

“The Browns have a point to prove after last week’s beating by Jacksonville, and they can’t possibly be taking the Raiders lightly. Browns cruise 28-7 at home.”

I don’t feel like that’s a wise call. I thought the Browns should handle Tennessee— as it turned out, they got outplayed and would have lost, if not for an injury and some strange coaching decisions.

I saw some danger with the Jaguars (I compared them to the 1999 Browns and the current team to Mike Ditka’s New Orleans club) but thought the team would show its mettle with a decisive win or a blowout. They got beat handily.

I see the Browns as a winner today, because Sparano clearly isn’t as good a coach as Whisenhunt and probably not superior to Bradley. His Miami teams rarely pulled upsets– they always won the games you expected them to win and lost games you thought they ought to have been able to have won.

Could I see the game coming together in a big win for Cleveland? Yes. But I can see them struggling to win at home, in front of an increasingly-unhappy crowd.

The Browns should get better offensive line play– and the Raiders are much less likely to exploit blocking errors than Jacksonville. They should be able to run– and definitely be able to pass.

Defensively, the Raiiders haven’t had a running game, and Carr has mostly thrown dink passes with the occasional breakaway. So they shouldn’t be a threat to score too.

But it is very unusual for a team to go winless– and this is the last competitive game Oakland will have for some time. (Kansas City twice, St. Louis and Buffalo are the best shots). And the Browns haven’t, with the exception of Pittsburgh, made a game easy for itself.

The Browns are favored by 6.5 to 7… frankly, I’d take the points, Cleveland 24-Oakland 20.

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